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ISSUE 120 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 4/27/2007

Speaker confronts ancient sacrifice

By Andrea Horbinski
Staff Writer

Friday, April 27, 2007

On Monday afternoon, classicists and interested members of the St. Olaf community gathered in Dittmann 305 to hear Dr. Sarah P. Morris of UCLA, this year’s Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar at Carleton College, to give a talk entitled “"Isaac and Iphigenia: Human Sacrifice in Antiquity.”"

Morris’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Classics Department and by the St. Olaf chapter of Eta Sigma Phi, the national classics honor society. Morris was in town to give a talk at Carleton Monday night concerning Poseidon, Apollo, and the walls of Troy, but she agreed to cross the river to St. Olaf in the afternoon.

The well-illustrated lecture was positively chock-a-block with different sorts of evidence for Morris’' argument, including artworks, pottery, literary quotations, archaeological evidence and maps of many kinds. She began her talk first by mentioning a radical but very unpopular theory in archaeology, namely that the famed east frieze of the Parthenon in Athens represents, not a festival offering to Athena, but rather the prelude to the three daughters of Erechtheus, Athens’ king, sacrificing themselves to save the city. In order to get her audience thinking about the possible echoes of human sacrifice-like stories and practices which abound in ancient Greece.

Morris then briefly discussed animal sacrifice, arguing that for the ancients it was a “normative practice, not a particularly sensational or violent one” – dissident philosophers are the only people who express discomfort at the practice, which arose from Bronze Age blood sacrifice practices. Moreover, animal sacrifice was strictly categorized and controlled by category, and the Greek rites of offering closely parallel those described in the Hebrew Bible. Both the Hebrews and the Greeks derived their sacrificial practices from Semitic models in the ancient Near East.

By contrast, Morris argued, for the Greeks putting one of your own to death as a religious offering was a “truly horrific act.” She contrasted sacrificing one’s own child with other sacrifice motifs that occur often in Greek literature, art and mythology. These sources are replete with examples of human sacrifices, or at least ritualized executions, in the context of warfare, similar to the Aztec practice of sacrificing prisoners of war. There are also many Greek myths which are comparable to the Indian practice of sati, wife-sacrifice at her husband’'s death, which is now illegal in India.

Morris noted as well that the only stories of human sacrifice in Greek mythology involve non-Greeks. She also took pains to note that there is very little evidence, all of it highly controversial or ambiguous, of human sacrifice ever taking place in Greece, while the best source for descriptions, specifically of child sacrifice, in antiquity is the Hebrew Bible.

Morris cited Yahweh’s exhortation in Exodus, “give me the first-born among your sons,” as the survival among the Hebrews of an ancient Canaanite/Phoenician practice, that of the killing and subsequent cremation of infants and young children. The innovation of Yahwehism, she suggested, was that “you don’t have to kill your children.”

Phoenician archaeological sites are rife with infant graveyards, called tophet, which contain the remains of cremated children (and children were not normally cremated), usually with animal offerings and tombstones which read things such as “to our lady, to our lord, that which was vowed.”

All the ancient sources describing Phoenician child sacrifices, she reminded her audience, are written by non-Phoenicians with an interest in making the Phoenicians look as inhuman as possible. Moreover, high infant mortality rates were a fact of life until the advent of antibiotics, and it is equally possible that, rather than killing them deliberately, the Phoenicians simply cremated the bodies of infants who had died or been exposed and offered them to their gods ritualistically.

The word used to describe human sacrifice in both ancient Greek and in the Hebrew Bible is ‘holocauston,’ which literally means ‘burnt offering,’ and Morris concluded that, rather than ever practicing human sacrifice themselves, for the Greeks the foreign, Phoenician idea of passing children through fire was preserved in multiple myths and stories out of sheer aversion.

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